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Lucy Guerin is a choreographer
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Lucy Guerin is a choreographer
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"You have to keep constantly stripping back all your ideas and preconceptions about what it is that you do."
1 October 2011

Lucy Guerin is a choreographer

Interview by Lorelai Vashti
Photography by Toby Burrows

Lorelai Vashti on Lucy Guerin

The American writer and humorist Fran Lebowitz once said she always thought writers had the most terrible, most difficult job in the world—until she sat in on a dance rehearsal and watched a choreographer do his work.

“My idea of pure hell,” she said of the choreographer’s role. “The dancers sit there waiting for him to come up with something. It would be as if the letters were sitting there, or the words, smoking cigarettes, staring at you, as if to say, Well? OK, come on.”

I’m pretty sure choreographer Lucy Guerin doesn’t think she’s stuck doing the worst job in the world. And I definitely don’t think the dancers in her company, Lucy Guerin Inc, stand around glaring at her impatiently, flicking cigarette ash into the floorboard cracks while they wait for Guerin’s muse to strike. The impression I got of her choreographic process was more of a conscientious scientist doing laboratory experiments; her approach to dance is questioning, active, exploratory. It’s a method that has led to the creation of the most interesting and thought-provoking contemporary dance works Australia has seen in the last decade.

Guerin grew up in Adelaide, and founded Lucy Guerin Inc in 2002. As a choreographer and director she has collaborated with many other artists, including her partner Gideon Obarzanek’s dance company, Chunky Move. Her work frequently incorporates voice, video, and sound, and is often disarmingly funny. In Human Interest Story, her company’s most recent piece, she had her dancers mimic the vocal stylings and body movements of newsreaders. There is one section when a dancer steps forward and narrates the movements of the dancers behind her, as if she is gravely commentating the footage accompanying a news story. It’s a fascinating effect in itself, but what really strikes me are the short, sharp inhalations of breath punctuating the speech of the dancer—even though her voice is leveled and controlled, her natural dancer’s breathlessness make her human, in a way newsreaders aren’t.

By the time I finally got Guerin on the phone I was a little out of breath myself. I was stuck out in NSW’s Hunter Valley for the weekend and the nightmare problems every interviewer dreads (the reception is bad! The tape recorder isn’t recording!) had devoured half an hour of our time. I was feeling flustered and sheepish when we finally got a clear connection but Guerin instantly put me at ease with her chatty and generous nature.

Despite the initial bad phone connection, my concern that I wouldn’t be able to hear Guerin’s voice was utterly absurd. I should have remembered from my research that the most distinctive thing about Guerin, no matter what she does, is that her voice always comes through loud and clear.

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

LORELEI VASHTI: The way that I’d love to start is probably where everyone starts: was it always dance for you? Was there a specific moment in childhood where you just knew you had to be involved in the world of dance?

LUCY GUERIN: As a child I always thought about being a dancer, so I went to ballet class from about the age of seven. I think I had a fantasy about being a dancer, but I never really considered that it might be possible. I didn’t know any other dancers through my family or friends, and I grew up in Adelaide in a fairly lovely, ordinary middle-class family. I did actually give up dancing in my teens, when I was in high school, for several years. But then when I left school I wanted to have a year off; I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do. I had a few ideas, but I really missed dancing, and I decided that I’d just like to go back and do some dancing. I think mainly because of this thought of, how would you be a dancer, or the idea that you had to be so amazingly good… I would never be able to attain that. Through returning to dance, in that year off from study and what I imagined would be some other career, I really got drawn back in again, and one thing led to another. Opportunities came up, and here I am.

That’s incredible, and I’m really interested in how this idea of dance sort of haunted you. The mythology around dance—The Red Shoes and this idea of you gotta dance—is so strong in your art form. Most people believe that you have to be training since you’re six, and just keep going, and you don’t eat while you’re a teenager; that it’s a youthful occupation, and not really one that people come to as young adults.

I think generally, dancers—especially women—start quite young, and it’s quite competitive. Apparently, there are more children attending dance schools than engaged in sport, at a certain age. You talk to people quite often who say, “Oh, I used to dance when I was young.” But I think that whole fantasy—that myth of the dancer living on the joy of dance and not eating much and only thinking about dance—I don’t really relate to that at all. It wasn’t ever really my experience. But I do think that there is something about dancing, or probably any highly physical activity, that is somewhat addictive; it’s almost like you retain a memory of it in your body. I think that’s what I missed, when I stopped.

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

I had this physical memory of this physical practice, but also this form of expression.

I don’t think that most people would automatically think of dance as a conduit for ideas as such—stories, of course—but ideas, this communication of ideas seems to be more in the realm of documentary or literature or theatre. Dance seems like the most challenging platform, or art form, to communicate with, as language is such a big part of communication. Is it just as easy to communicate through dance as it is through words?

Well, I think that’s one of the driving interests for me as a choreographer—what is it that dance can communicate? There’s definitely a lot that can be transmitted through dance. But, it’s not the same type of information that can be transmitted through words or speech or written communication. I’ve worked quite a bit with this, especially in my more recent works; in trying to discern how the human body in movement communicates, as opposed to through this language channel. But I do think that dance can be a vehicle for ideas.

I don’t think the ideas are necessarily the most important thing—it’s actually the way that they’re being received by an audience that might be able to open up a different understanding of the idea, or of their connection to themselves that perhaps wouldn’t happen through the more conventional forms of language.

So the audience, for you, has to work when they come to your show, they have to fill in some gaps, they have to bring themselves to your performance. It’s not like sitting back and watching, I don’t know, Swan Lake. They have to bring their own emotions to it.

I think every audience member comes with a whole lifetime behind them, and a whole history of experiences and knowledge or gaps in their knowledge… In a way, each person will see a different show, just because of their personal history. And I think that’s the thing about dancing—it’s not a super-pointy or specific sort of art form. The one thing that I do hope audiences come to a performance with is an open mind; rather than working too hard, that they just allow themselves to see what they’re seeing. Because of this whole dominance of language as the communication form, often people try to interpret what they’re seeing as needing ‘true’ language, so they’re trying to, I don’t know, interpret each move as a sort of hieroglyphics or something, and it doesn’t work like that.

They’re not feeling it in their own bodies, perhaps…

They’re not feeling it in their bodies, or it’s a visual thing. I don’t know, I think there’s probably a lot of ways in which we can relate to dance.

I just wanted to go back to when you decided to become a choreographer. New York was a real turning point for you, when you hired a studio and created your first work, in a steamy New York summer. What changed, during that time, to make you go from being a dancer to being a choreographer?

Well, I’d been dancing for other people for quite a while, and as a dancer, although you do contribute quite a lot to the making of the work, in certain situations, you’re not the initiator of the process, or the creator of the work. I had these ideas that I wanted to express, and I wanted to be the one initiating the idea and the creative process. And that manifested itself through actually becoming quite critical of the people I was working with, in some ways, and that’s quite a common thing. I’ve noticed that with my own dancers; I can always tell when they’re ready to start making their own work, because you start to sense this separation. So I think I went through that process, and then when I did go into the studio, I did find it, initially, incredibly difficult. I think when you’re starting out choreographing, and you’ve done a lot of other people’s work, you do have this physical memory in your body of what you’ve done before. I spent a lot of time in the studio undoing, or trying to find ways to circumnavigate just reproducing what I’d done before. And that was quite a challenging and in some ways frustrating time.

I spent a lot of it lying on the floor and not doing much of anything at all [laughs]. But I think that’s quite a common experience for a choreographer.

So what goes through your head when you’re lying on the floor like that? I mean, all artists spend that time lying on the floor. I love that vision of you!

I think for me, it was wanting to encompass everything in pretty much my first ten-minute solo. I’ve since realised, now that I’ve made however many pieces, that it’s better to just focus on one quite small thing in a work. At that stage, my mind was just sifting through everything that I loved and hated about dance, and trying to reject a whole lot of things and incorporate all these other things. It was a period of self-definition, and also of just building a personal approach, a way into the art form, that I felt was really genuine and definitely coming from me.

I understand. How did you manage to live in New York, during that time? You were there for about seven years, right? It’s tough! I’ve tried to do that, and I wasn’t there for seven years. Was it a hard time, or do you remember it with fondness?

Oh, very much so! I remember it with very much fondness. But also, it was hard, it was very hard, and I think I found out what my capacity for work was when I lived in New York. I spent a lot of time waiting tables in various restaurants the whole time I was there, apart from when I went on tour with the dance companies I was with, and I got to be a very good waitress, and learned quite a bit about food and wine, which I now appreciate [laughs]. But it was quite tiring, because that evening probably doesn’t finish ‘ti twelve or sometimes one, and generally dance is a somewhat early-morning activity; you go to class at ten, which is reasonably civilised, actually, thank God, in New York. But I found a really strong community of artists there, in the downtown dance scene, that were very supportive and inclusive. I was really able to find people who really inspired me, and who I felt I had a connection with. Just the vast amount of different voices in New York—you can really find what you’re looking for.

Are you still in touch with these people who inspired you? You grew up without really any dance inspiration around you, so I can imagine, suddenly meeting these people, they’d quickly turn into mentors or gurus. Is there anyone who stands out as someone who really shaped your world?

Oh, there are many, many people. And I am still in touch with several of my dance colleagues in New York and I’m just about to go there this year, so I’ll definitely catch up with them. I really look forward to that, to really having these nerdy dance discussions, because the thing about choreography and dance—it’s like any highly specialised field, I suppose, although it’s accessibly to everybody, and I truly believe that—once you’ve been doing it for a long time, you peel away these layers and other people who have been doing that as well, you can have an almost technical conversation with them that is not so easy to follow. I have people in Australia that I can talk to in that way as well.

Yeah. But a lot has changed in Australia since you left, I’m sure—

Oh, absolutely.

—so I wonder if you’d still say to someone starting out in dance now, is it necessary to leave Australia and go out and get it? Or will it come to you if you stay in the same spot? There’s a Zen idea of, do you stay in one place, and let things come to you, or do you go out and get them?

Well, I think definitely you can have a career in dance in Australia now, without leaving, and that’s always been possible for a few people, but I think that there are more opportunities now to stay here and have a really interesting career. But I still think that it’s extremely important for younger dancers and choreographers to go overseas, just to find out what is going on. It’s quite a different dance culture in Europe to what it is in America to what it is in Australia, and we really don’t have much connection with international choreographers, because dance is really an art form you have to see live. A lot of work that I’m doing is not well-reproduced on video. It’s not the same experience. And not a lot of it reaches us. For younger dancers to go and see where the zeitgeist of the form is, I think it gives you a real understanding of where you’re situated in a global context. And that’s very, very important.

You’re a choreographer who is always reaching out to the world outside. To me, this is also reflective of your many collaborations; I’m interested in how an artist goes out into the world and chooses what to bring back, whether it be people to collaborate with or ideas that pique their interest, that they have to work out their feelings towards these ideas through their art form. Are you just going by gut feelings, or is it more, “I need to meet someone who can—I don’t know—paint sets in a certain way.”

It’s a tricky business, choosing collaborators. On the one hand, I think it’s really important to have a real connection with a collaborator, and there are only so many people in the world that you’re going to have that with.

It’s like being in love.

Yeah, it’s true. In my last work, I asked my partner Gideon Oberzanek to design the set—

I’m glad you mentioned it, I was going to ask you about Gideon—I’m very interested in this collaboration. I’m fascinated that it’s possible to collaborate with your partner [laughs].

I think I actually have problems with locating collaborators, just because I feel like I want to know them. Rather than just seeing their work and thinking, “Oh, I’d like to incorporate that work into my work,” it’s about the relationship between the two of you; the two forms need to affect each other for it to be really successful. I find it quite easy to work with composers most of the time, because I think I’m able to talk about what I want from sound quite well, but when it comes to sets, which can often end up being objects in the space or things that actually don’t necessarily really enhance the dance, or the dance doesn’t enhance them—you want to have this integration. But that said, I have had some wonderful set collaborations as well; the one for Structure and Sadness, with Bluebottle, it was difficult, but the result that evolved out of that relationship was amazing.

So do you have a team of people that you surround yourself with, and that have travelled along with you with your work over the last few decades? I know some film directors have producers and scriptwriters that they always work with; I’m wondering if it’s the same for choreographers, if there’s a team that trusts each other and moves along together.

I think that my dancers are my most long-term collaborators, because that for me is really the focus of the work, these weeks and months that we spend in the studio together, finding ways to develop material for whatever the focus of the work is. I have worked with a number of composers repeatedly, but I do tend to try different people, and I think the people that I surround myself with are colleagues, other choreographers. I don’t have anyone that I’ve worked with right from the beginning. Some choreographers do, but I guess I’m a bit fickle in that way.

I was reading something that Twyla Tharp said, about how not all dancers are equipped to become choreographers, and I’d never really thought about it in this way. She was talking about how you have to humble yourself, and let others take the centre stage, which is not what dancers are used to doing. Was that part of becoming a choreographer difficult for you?

No, I didn’t find it hard at all, actually—it was a very natural progression and in fact, probably about six years ago or so, I probably did my last live performance. By that stage, I had kind of lost connection with my performing self, and I recognised that quite strongly; I felt like I was imitating my younger dancing self, or hanging onto something that I’d actually outgrown. I knew that I could keep performing, but that I would have to reinvent myself as a dancer and a performer, and I just wasn’t really interested in doing that. I know other dancers who have done that absolutely amazingly, well into their forties and later sometimes, and I think it’s just maintaining this connection and not being dishonest—having a kind of honesty with yourself about you, what you’re feeling and how you’re expressing that.

That takes a lot of courage, to admit that to yourself—but if honesty is the point of what you’re expressing, and what you’re investigating, then it makes so much sense. I guess, the thing with dance, in my understanding, is that there’s an age limit on it for dancers—there’s none for choreographers. You’re just going to keep having the energy to be creating new work forever?

It’s really important, I think, as you get older or as you continue to choreograph—or do any artform, I’m sure—that you continue to investigate the artform, and that you don’t settle into a formula of, ‘Oh, this is how I do things, and this has worked before and so I’ll try this again.’ I’m sure that the idea that you have to keep constantly stripping back all your ideas and preconceptions about what it is that you do, and reassessing why you’re doing it, and what you’re doing. For me, if I stopped doing that then I would definitely stop. As well as loving dance and all that, it’s really the idea of a continuing investigation of something that I’m so riveted by.

Having said that about making peace with that role of choreographer, do you always try a role out on yourself first? Is that something you would do—choreograph on yourself, and then take it into the studio?

No—well, I think the very first piece I made, because I was quite nervous about, you know, standing up in front of the dancers and telling them what to do—it’s quite foreign to my nature, in a way—I did work out pretty much every single step before I went into the studio, and then just pretty much showed people. But I don’t work anything out now—

You just rock up into a big room—

I just rock up into a big room and have a number of ideas, and then decide how I’m going to go about working on a way of physically expressing those ideas, and that can take any number of forms—it could be looking at the story; we looked at lots of riots and sports games and rock concerts on YouTube, and copied the movement and made the movement that way; or it might be getting people to develop material themselves through various tasks, or getting into various physical states to generate movement. It just depends on what the idea is, for me, as to what is the mode of generating the material, and what is the most appropriate process for that.

I read a reviewer who described you work as having ‘the clipped dialogue of film noir’, and when I watch your work, it’s sharp, and sparse. I’m a writer but I’m also an editor—it makes me wonder how much working over and editing is involved? When you’re doing the movement over and over to make sure you get it right, and breaking the movement down into its most pure form?

I think it is a process of deduction. I just dive into the middle of it, I don’t start at the beginning and then work through to the end. I just start developing something, and I’m never sure whether it’s going to be in the work, or if it’s going to be at the beginning or the end, and from the starting point all other information emerges. Some things take very little time to make, and they almost just come out full-formed, and other things take a long, long time. And certain movements, phrases, that I want to have a certain type of physicality, that takes a really long time, and it can be repetitive, but it’s also really important and rewarding to be able to refine a sort of physical quality for the dancers in the movement that they’re doing. Even if the material itself is quite instinctive, and I might not fully understand where it’s all come from or why, without that organising principle that comes at a certain point in making the work, I wouldn’t put the work on.

This talk about structure makes me think of your work Structure and Sadness which you’re about to take overseas, but which you created in 2006. Could you just tell us a bit about it? It’s a very architectural work, about the bridge—could you explain it?

Well, it’s drawn from a real-life event, which is probably the only one of my works that I made that way, and it was the collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne in 1970, which killed 35 men while it was under construction. It’s quite a tragic event, and it was a large-scale and quite physical event, in terms of the force of gravity and the weight of the structure collapsing. And so we worked a lot on that idea, of physical principles that operate on a bridge, both when it’s built, but also what happens when it collapses; ideas of compression and torsion, buckling, there’s a whole lot of engineering terms which I very much got into when I was making the work and applying those to the human body and to choreography, to develop the material.

I was also drawn to Untrained, which is your work where you take two trained, skilled dancers, male dancers, and you pair them with two untrained male dancers, who’ve never danced before, you audition them before the show. Just watching this process on screen, the men are learning so much and getting so much out of it, and I’m wondering what you get out of that. You’re the one out the front, teaching them and trying to get them in the headspace of a dancer. They’ve never been there before, and you’re taking them there.

Well, generally with Untrained, we only have a weeklong rehearsal, so the untrained dancers only get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a dancer, really. It’d be like going and doing yoga for a week—or, anything for a week—you’re really just scratching the surface. It is quite amazing—I get huge amounts out of doing Untrained, actually, on many different levels, and one of those is just watching the passion with which most people seem to engage with movement, when it’s presented to them as a daily practice. There’s always a warm-up for an hour in the morning, and then we’re working on the piece, which is just based on listed instructions which the performer interprets themselves, in their own way. Every time we do it with a different cast, the work is very different, because of the cast members involved, but I think the most wonderful thing for me about Untrained, and why I really wanted to do it at all, was that I just love watching untrained people trying out choreographed movement. Or trying out any sort of movement, because I think, as dancers, we all have different trainings, but we’re all trained to know exactly where our bodies are in space, and to have this real sense of the relationship between the body parts, and of how those parts relate to the front, side, back, the diagonal—it’s so engrained in us that it’s quite difficult to not to do that. And I think that untrained men are so precarious—they have no system with which to approach these tasks, or these movements. They don’t know what’s going to come out, so it has this amazing, surprising spontaneity which I just love. And I know that it’s humorous to a lot of people—I guess it is funny—but it’s not the humour, so much, for me, as that kind of unpredictability. It’s such a surprise, what you see from these men. From each one, it’s so individual.

Earlier on you talked about that body memory and the physical memory. I was wondering, for these guys, if there was ever a sense of this idea that you talk about, of this physical memory coming back to them. I mean, anyone can dance, right? Is that what you believe?

Well, of course anyone can dance, and the question is, what is dancing? I think dancing is really a kind of a motivation, in a way, or an attitude—the difference between walking, for example—you can walk and still be dancing, or you can walk and just be walking.

I love that. So dance is an attitude.

Yeah, I think it’s a kind of, oh—

—A headspace?

Yeah, like a motivation. The thing about it is, it’s not related to ordinary movement, even though there is a lot of ordinary movement in dance, especially now; a lot of pedestrian movement. But it’s done in a different spirit, I think, than that unconscious cleaning of your teeth. Anyway, it’s probably a very arguable definition, but that’s what it is for me.

Yeah, well, I’m a non-dancer, and I quit dancing at six, six months after I started, but I’ve since taken adult beginner ballet classes. Ever since I’ve started doing yoga and things like that, I’ve become much more inhabited in my body, and that’s what I’m very interested in—how dance, or doing anything physical, really, and doing it mindfully, brings you into your body. So for me, I’m really interested in this idea that yeah, all of us are dancers.

I suppose one of the reasons that I work with men in this work, rather than women, is that there’s a lot of self-consciousness for men about dancing—not for all men, and it’s cultural as well, of course—so it’s an act of courage, also, to dance. And also, to just allow yourself to be quite vulnerable—then after a week they have to get up in front of an audience and do it, and the audience do find it amusing, you know, but there’s a huge amount of respect from the audience for those men. And you can really feel it, because they identify so strongly with them, because they’re people, just like them, without dance training; there’s a real kind of support from the audience for those guys doing that work.

I started thinking about lots of young musicians, who are incorporating movement and dance into their filmclips—Washington, Kimbra, Jessica Says. Have you ever thought of collaborating on that sort of project with someone, or have you ever done so? Working with a musician, or a singer, to help them bring music and movement together?

No, I never have. I mean, I’ve worked with the Opera, once; and I’ve also worked with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra once. But I have a different relationship to music. I mean, I love dancing to music, and I think it’s great and it’s fine, but in terms of making a dance piece, I like to make the dance first, so that it’s not just a response to the music, so that it is the primary driver of the work. Music then comes in and out. There may be a beat, but that beat will be determined by what the dance material is, rather than, put on a track and we’ll all dance to it. Or it may not have a beat, it might just be some sort of ambient sound, or silence, or it may just be talking. I’m a bit wary of that traditional relationship between dance and music, in the way that I want the physical rhythms or the timings that are in the material that I’m making to be heard first [laughs]. And supported. And so generally when I work with musicians or composers, they don’t hand me a piece of music and I choreograph to it; generally the music is made during or even sometimes after when the dance material is made.

Yep, okay—that makes so much sense. What would be your favourite song to just put on and dance to in your living room? Is that a crazy question?

That’s too hard! That’s too hard a question.

I’ll tell you mine—Kate Bush. Just any Kate Bush.

Kate Bush? [laughs] Yeah, I can understand that—

Who also has a big choreographic background.

Yeah, she does—she was a dancer. Yeah, I don’t know! I don’t really have a favourite—the favourite changes all the time.

Do you even need music? You don’t, do you!

Oh, if I was dancing around my living room, I’d definitely like to have music, yeah! I don’t walk around doing abstract shapes in the lounge room.

Oh, that’s disappointing—that was the vision I had of you, Lucy.

Oh, actually, I might do that a little bit.

Lorelai Vashti

Lorelei Vashti is a writer and editor. She is a co-curator of the popular Women of Letters series, and her projects include a baby surname handbook to help new parents choose their child’s last name, and a podcast about names. She also manages a guesthouse and artist’s retreat in the Dandenong Ranges called Jacky Winter Gardens. Her book, Dress Memory: A Memoir of my Twenties in Dresses, was published in 2014.

Photography by Toby Burrows

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